Performance anxiety in musical theatre settings

Most people have experienced some level of anxiety before, during, and/or after a performance of some sort. Those performances may include traditional performing arts such as dance, theatre, or music, or a wide range of other experiences that create similar circumstances such as public speaking, corporate presentations, sales, teaching, sports, or test taking. You might be uncomfortable, but have no idea what’s happening to you or how to solve it. Additionally, it is not uncommon for people who experience performance anxiety to also experience generalized anxiety symptoms in their professional life, home life, relationships, and basic day-to-day situations.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is defined as a feeling or worry, nervousness or unease about an imminent event or uncertain outcome, differing from fear in that fear addresses a present threat while anxiety is typically felt in relation to something in the future. Anxiety is a normal, healthy human emotion and in small doses is helpful in decision making processes and in achieving peak success. In the field of psychology, there are several types of anxiety that are considered diagnosable as disorders, when anxiety starts to affect daily life in frequent or serious episodes. Panic disorder, social phobia, specific phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder are the most common of these, but are not covered within the scope of this website, as performance anxiety is not a chronic, disordered condition. If you think you might suffer from one of these disorders, it is worth getting a psychiatric evaluation and seeking treatment. Medication and non-medicated treatments can drastically improve your quality of life.

Performance anxiety

Performance anxiety is another beast: it is not a chronic disorder, but an episodic experience that can range from mildly uncomfortable to unbearable. Performance anxiety is worry, nervousness or unease about a specific future event in which you will be required to execute a specific task, like sing a song, speak in a scene, give a keynote speech, take an important test, or finish a big project at work. Performance anxiety usually occurs when you’ll be in front of an audience or when important consequences ride on the outcome of the task. Anxiety might be felt only during the task, or it can be felt for days, weeks or months leading up to it, depending on the person and the importance of the task.

Are you anxious?

If this blog is one of the first times you’ve really explored the meaning and symptoms of anxiety and/or performance anxiety, you’re not alone. Many people experience ranges of uncomfortable symptoms and just assume that it’s normal and that nothing can be done about it; how sad, when there are so many strategies that can help you feel much better!

If you have experienced a few or many of the following symptoms before or during a performance situation, you are experiencing performance anxiety:

  • Sweaty palms, feet, armpits, or general sweating anywhere
  • Racing heart rate
  • Hot flashes or chills, sudden changes in body temperature
  • Quick shallow breathing, tightness in the chest, or hyperventilation
  • Dizziness
  • Racing thoughts, obsessive worry about failure during the task
  • Naseau, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Urge to use the bathroom frequently
  • Inability to make small talk or find the “right” thing to say
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Shakiness
  • Sensitivity to the environment, such as lights, sounds, or textures

As you can see, this list of sensations is not only unpleasant, but makes performing at your best nearly impossible. Worries of failure become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What should I do to reduce performance anxiety?

What's an anxious aspiring musical theatre performer to do? My first recommendation is to pick our our eBook written specifically for this topic, Overcoming Performance Anxiety for Musical Theatre Performers, which describes symptoms and treatments in more detail, and offers activities and exercises to get you moving toward changing your onstage experiences. Additionally, work on your acting skills by reading and completing the exercises in Sensational Scenes and Songs, which focuses on correcting some of the main acting problems seen in musical theatre. Although acting skills might seem unrelated to anxiety, they are not, and usually people who are better trained are more confident, better prepared and experience less anxiety. Third, I recommend reading Meditation for Musical Theatre Performers, another eBook on this site, which will train you in controlling anxious thoughts and relaxing in those key moments when you are about to go onstage. Finally, I recommend completing an exposure ladder, a step-by-step psychotherapy exercise in which you'll find small ways to work your way up to the high stakes, big stage moments. Exposure ladders will be covered in another blog post. Good luck and keep performing!

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